Jean Boghossian’s practice includes watercolour, charcoal and oil and acrylic painting, but it is all really fire and smoke. Whether folding, collaging or pliaging, the visual language he has developed is distinctly risqué – both conceptually and physically. Developing an interest in arts as a child, “Starting with figurative representation, I evolved through a long period of research and experiments until I reached abstraction,” Boghossian says, noting that his influences include Conceptual art, the Zero movement and Fluxus. “It was a trigger for freedom where after studying all the rules of art, I realised art has no rules. The artist makes his own rules.” But there is strategy behind Boghossian’s dismissal of categorisation and characteristic use of fire as a technique – “It doesn’t mean doing just anything.”
Focused on research, constant questioning and a palpable anguish of how to paint in today’s time led Boghossian to adopt his unorthodox approach. “For many years I experimented with Abstract Expressionism, collage, tearing, dripping, pleating… until I wanted to test fire,” he says. With what could retrospectively be viewed as playful intent, Boghossian found himself wondering, “What happens when I bring the blowtorch close to wet or dry colour? When does yellow become brown or black in reaction to it? When does the canvas burn, and now? When does a hole occur?” The use of fire soon became synonymous with Boghossian’s identity, and allowed him to broach his other lingering, philosophical self-query: “How can I be authentic and faithful to myself through deep emotions, serious thoughts including honesty, density, intensity and renewal, while bringing something that has not been done before?”
Through an array of brushes and torches, Boghossian’s canvases are visceral and poetic, calm yet chaotic, a merged form of high and low art that has universal appeal – the gestural formations require no art historical knowledge, simply eyes and intuition. The methods mean that each burned book, canvas, chair, or paper is unique, allowing Boghossian an infinite amount of random interpretations through the simple tools he employs. Texture is paramount – the smoky traces, visible fissures and imperfect patterning read as delicate, ephemeral and soft. A marked contrast against the reality of the technique, Boghossian admits, “I have burned away a few paintings, and my fingers! I found that fire, flame and smoke are dangerous, sometimes uncontrollable, but I have to deal with the hazard.” Hazard, he remarks, is “a part of life which is born in a remote corner of the universe. Hazard and reality are two facets of the same world where one is the consequence of the other.”
Exploring the existential challenge of taming hazard through artistic means is the foundation of his art, more so than simplified readings of his practice in relation to his history. “Was it the civil war in Beirut that produced in my mind a need to create burns, soot, smoke and holes in canvas through use of fire?” he asks. “Was it the artistic gesture of my work – after 30 years of questioning leading to these experiments – that managed to reproduce the remains of a sublimated war that transcended the violence?” Boghossian wasn’t thinking of war when fire became his medium, but acknowledges that art serves as a memory of the world, offering traces of civilisations. “It was pure artistic representation that took into account the action of the fire. It was the will of construction through deconstruction. But somehow, traces of war were present in my subconscious.”
The multifaceted influences range from his latent consciousness through to artists such as Alberto Burri, Yves Klein and Arman, who have likewise played with fire. “I think I have a deep knowledge of the art of fire and the reason why I am still in it is that I have not yet discovered all that can be revealed to me,” he muses. “Fire is a controversial partner – it reveals to me only what it decides to. But I need to tame him, guide him, calm him or stop him, before it goes too far.”
Unpredictable Horizons opens at Ayyam Gallery on 19 March, 6-10PM.
Ayyam Gallery is organising Artist and Alchemist, a talk with the artist, on 21 March, 4:30PM in the Majlis (The Yard).